‘Tommy’, introduced by Sue Harper and Justin Smith

Kevin Nash reports on the screening and talk

On 1st March, QMUL Film Society and Living British Cinema provided a thought-provoking and informative presentation of Ken Russell’s film version of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy (1975), in the Alfred Hitchcock Theatre at QMUL. The selection of special guests Professor Sue Harper and Dr. Justin Smith (University of Portsmouth Film Studies) to introduce the film was particularly timely in light of the recent publication of their book, British Film Culture in the 1970s, the Boundaries of Pleasure (Edinburgh University Press, 2011) and the fact that Tommy was largely filmed in and around Portsmouth, where they both teach.

Harper described British cinema of the 1970s as the ‘cinema of equivocation, irony and disavowal’ which opened its doors in a new way. Whether avant-garde or mainstream, cinema of the 1970s embodied the notion of fracture: a breakdown in the established aesthetic, narrative or social order. This was in turn characterised by the use of certain motifs, such as the Picaro figure, an unfixed, entrepreneurial figure who courts disaster but who is the midwife of change, and the Romantic hero or heroine who wishes for emotional fulfillment but who deliberately sabotages his or her own chances of obtaining it. Significantly, Harper noted, the predominant social issues of the 1970s, such as feminism, did not appear in the films of that era. If anything, 1970s cinema was characterised by disquiet about women’s liberation and in particular the mothering process (in films such as To the Devil a Daughter). As Harper pointed out, 1970s films did not engage with those social issues but refracted them.

In his introduction to Tommy, Smith explained the importance of the film in British cinema of the 1970s. While the film celebrates the 1960s (when the originalTommy rock opera was released), it spans a broader landscape in British post-war popular culture. One of the major hallmarks of film in this era was the potential crossover of music to film. While the film industry in England in the 1970s was in a state of decline, the music industry was on the crest of a wave; and the music moguls of the period were looking for opportunities to break into film. Tommy was in many ways a perfect vehicle for this crossover and Ken Russell the ideal director. Music had always played a major role in Russell’s films; and he was always interested in the corruptive influence of the media – a recurring theme in the rock opera.

The actual screening of the film provided ample material illustrating the themes and characteristics of British cinema of the 1970s and the background to the film, as explained by Harper and Smith. But it also spoke to the vitality and immediacy of Ken Russell’s work, demonstrating the enduring legacy of one of Britain’s great iconoclastic filmmakers.